The following is an interview with science fiction/fantasy writer Mark Teppo, whose recent interactive fiction project, The Mongoliad, joined a number of powerhouse authors including Neal Stephenson, Greg Bear, and E.D. deBirmingham. In this interview, Fanboy Comics Senior Contributor Ben Rhodes talks with Teppo about the writing process for The Mongoliad, sword fighting via laptop, and the upcoming plans for further Mongoliad stories.
This interview was conducted on April 19, 2012.
Ben Rhodes, Fanboy Comics Senior Contributor: Would you mind describing the writing process for this book? I imagine this is like herding cats.
Mark Teppo: It’s both better and worse. I have one cat, and getting him to do anything is nearly impossible. With a bunch of writers, you tend to point them in a direction and hope for the best. I’m very fortunate to have a team that responds well to being nudged in one direction or another. Though, they did go off into the weeds more than once. The interesting upside of this behavior is that we stopped plotting in any granular way early on, because it became obvious that doing so would be to make a lot of plans we’d never get to.
BR: That leads into another question I had. How much of each chapter is improv, and how much is planned in advance?
MT: It’s all improv. 🙂 There are several schools of thought about writing–I tend to be more organic in my process, and after a couple of years with the Mongoliad team, I’m only more inclined to work that way. We would have each team talk through the outline of the next chapter and get a general consensus that the direction was the right one. After six months or so, there were too many details on any given story branch for all of us to keep in our heads, and so there was a certain amount of trust among the teams. One of my jobs was to keep aware of the continuity and the larger thematic arcs, but mostly the teams went off and did their thing with not much more than a brief outline. We did have a few awkwardly funny moments of synchronicity. Two back-to-back chapters ended up with characters falling off roofs as the cliffhanger.
BR: That’s hilarious. From a purely selfish angle, I have to ask, when will a new round of content be released?
MT: We have internal references to things which don’t make a lot of sense now, but let me run through them. When we started The Mongoliad, that was the name for the entire project, but it became obvious after a while that The Mongoliad was only the first part of a larger project (which we’re now calling The Foreworld Saga). We’d been calling The Mongoliad “Season One” up to that point, and so we tried to set that aside and start calling it “The Mongoliad.” But that hasn’t stopped us from calling the follow-on “Season Two,” which is confusing, because the next chunk of content is actually the “Side Quests,” which contains what we used to refer to as “Season Two.” Why yes, Ben, we are making some of this up as we go. Is it that obvious? So, all terminology aside, the follow-up stories of the characters from The Mongoliad will probably come out later this year and early next year, along with other stories that are set in different time periods.
BR: Any details you can share about those other stories?
MT: We built a lot of back story about Foreworld. Well, forward story too, I guess. The Side Quests are going to be a collection of shorter pieces (i.e., less than a trilogy’s worth) that span the entirety of the Foreworld timeline, which runs from 400 B.C. to 1914 C.E. They’re going to start appearing between the publication dates of The Mongoliad-as-trilogy, and then they’ll ramp up into a full-on flood through the end of next year. That’s the plan, at least.
BR: So, how did you all decide on this eccentric publishing model?
MT: It came out of talks about building movies and video games, actually. The initial genesis of all of this is actually a screenplay, but it was pointed out to us that studios typically try for an expansive rights grab when they acquire projects. Since we knew it would take some time to get a movie production up and running (if it even happened at all), the thinking was that the more territory we staked out as pre-existing, the more power we’d have in negotiations. We were sitting around in a room, mulling this over, and someone asked, “Well, what can you guys do to build an audience in the mean time?” Someone replied, “We could write something, I guess.” Serializing it with the added social media aspect was an attempt to make an otherwise abstract process (the writer slaving away in their dungeon) more exposed and interesting to an audience. We wanted to build an audience immediately versus the traditional method of writing something and then sending it off into the wilds of publishing, which could take just as long as the Hollywood machinery. We happened to come to this realization about the same time that the whole idea of content creators making direct connections with their audiences started to get some traction.
BR: The website described the origins of the group as Neal Stephenson being dissatisfied with his depictions of sword fighting in his novels. Is that the whole story?
MT: Somewhat. Neal’s interest in sword fighting goes back to The Baroque Cycle days (if not earlier). He’s had a historical sword fighting study group for many years. Most of the writing team of The Mongoliad started studying with Neal and the others back in 2009 when the Bartitsu curriculum started up. After a few months, we had broken all of our training sticks and were casting about for something else to keep ourselves occupied with while the gear issue was sorted out. And, there were all these longswords lying about . . . After that, it rolled into that basic problem you have when you put a bunch of writers in a room. Someone is going to have an idea, and someone else will riff on it.
BR: I have to ask. Who is the best sword fighter in the group?
MT: He Who Shall Not Be Named. This way you never know which one of us is going to be the one to take you out. :)
BR: Fantastic. Does it annoy you guys when you watch a movie or read a book and the sword fights are just terrible?
MT: You stop watching for those sorts of things after a while. The recent Three Musketeers reboot, for example. Pretty film. Lovely costumes. I went into the kitchen and made a sandwich during the extended fight sequence in the courtyard between the Musketeers and the Cardinal’s guard.
BR: How much time do you put into choreographing the fights?
MT: The first fight we wrote, which is between Haakon and Zug, took us about . . . ah, eight months? Yeah, about that long. Some of the behind-the-scenes extras on the site are our earlier drafts of that fight. We kept getting things wrong and would have to scrap it all and start over. And each time, we had a new set of experts in to help us. We even tried to do a video conference with one of our experts in Finland, which was, I’m sure, strange to watch for an outsider. A bunch of grown men hitting each other with swords while a disembodied voice out of a laptop would shout at them, and then these guys would all run over and cluster around the laptop to watch the feed. Later fights became much shorter, partly because we started to figure out that most fights were, typically, pretty short, and after a few dozen or so, writing the intricate details start to get in the way of telling the story.
BR: Actually, looking back, the details were much less specific in the fights. I didn’t even notice. My last question is, how often do you all get together?
MT: There’s a weekly writers’ meeting where we try to get as many of us in the same room as possible, but there are a number of rolling conversations that continue through the week via IM, Skype, email, and forum posts. I’m sort of the nexus of communication, and so I’m sure I feel more connected to the whole team more of the time than they do. I’m not sure this project could have been possible a few years ago when global instant communication wasn’t as good as it is now.
BR: Do you think your role as the keeper of the canon is the reason you wind up being the communication hub?
MT: Oh, absolutely. The job has certainly changed over the past two years. At first, I was the guy who knew where all the pieces were on the wiki, and then I became Canon Master. That rolled into Creative Director when it became clear we needed someone steering the ship. From there, it morphed into Nexus Point. At some point, I’m sure it will grow to a point where all of these facets will have to be managed by multiple people. Soon, I hope. That’ll be a lovely day. :)
BR: Mark, I want to thank you for taking the time to talk to me. I can’t wait to see where the Foreworld takes us.
MT: No problem, Ben. Thanks for having me over to chat. Yeah, I’m looking forward to seeing where Foreworld goes myself. 🙂
The Mongoliad is now available for purchase on Amazon! Click here to buy your copy!
To learn more about The Mongoliad, check out the below trailer!